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Scientists, politicians, and the Sumatran tiger are all in a boat….

Posted by Geneviève Ferone on 17 March 2010

The sometimes violent reconsideration of the work performed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, sharply highlights our society’s fault lines; emerging from the confrontation with unprecedented issues of governance and an economic crisis that has strangled western economies. Debates have become highly confused and issues have changed fields without lessening in number.

The summit clearly delineated the limits of our institutions

Thus, before Copenhagen, the key question was how to contain global warming under the cap of 2 degrees. The question now calls into question the amount of trust we should place in our scientists, especially when it comes to human responsibility in global warming. The summit clearly delineated the limits of our institutions. The 192 politicians would never have met had it not been for the work of the IPCC scientists. Scientists though can not dictate politics. Two groups of people are therefore in the game: a group of experts who understand the stakes but were not elected and a group of elected individuals who do not fully grasp the ramifications.

This protest is not meant to heap scorn on the scientific community whose rehabilitation has become urgent. Is this a simple phenomenon of isostasy, a normal and healthy return to a balanced middle path, or signs of a deeper unease? Our elite, today’s deciders, are not adequately steeped in scientific culture and the last minute activists sometimes ignore almost everything about the subjects. To forge ahead, we must invent a reconfiguration of these two groups, both political and scientific, whose social involvement is more than ever a necessity.

In our rush to solve an inextricable problem that we would all like to be rid of, we are in grave danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

In sum, climactic anomalies and an erosion of biodiversity can clearly be observed, but humans have nothing to do with it. What a relief. We will finally be able to resume our daily activities free of the guilt constantly fueled by defenders of an ever more virulent clerical ecology. Indeed, how can we poor, frail creatures pretend to battle on the same level as the sun, tectonic plates, the clouds, and oceans? All our efforts to be more frugal, all our little green acts won’t change a thing. Time will surely take care of things; scientists need to be able to continue exploring our planet step by step. We should all adopt the well known position that relies on the fact that no problem can resist for long against the absence of a solution. We should however, avoid raising such a stance to the level of a political model.

The limits of prosperity are much more dependant on available natural capital

In the name of a code of ethics for researchers (fortunately some of them do have one) and of the great complexity of barely explored domains, science will never be able to provide an absolute answer, free of margins of errors, for our political deciders. Meanwhile, increasing numbers of people and industries, evermore capable and competitive, increase pressure on ecosystems. However, the limits of prosperity are much more dependant on available natural capital than on current or future technological prowess. While technology continues to postpone the depletion of resources by providing materials that seem cheaper and cheaper, it is an illusion for their production costs do not include the disappearance of forests, the accumulation of toxic waste that is dumped into our rivers, the depletion of soil, and the erosion of cultures.

It is neither oil nor copper resources that are limiting our development but rather “Biogée”, term coined by Michel Serres meaning the earth and life. It is not the limits of pumping power but rather the drying up of aquifers that is threatening access to water. There are dozens of other examples.

The stock of natural capital is collapsing rapidly

Humanity has inherited a natural capital of 4 million years. At our current rate of use and deterioration, there will be very little left at the end of the next century. It is neither a dogmatic nor moral question but rather a subject of the utmost importance for our society and for human beings. Despite innumerable articles, books, and conferences on the state of the environment, the stock of natural capital is collapsing rapidly and the vital services it offers are crucial for our survival.

Despite all of this, our collective survival instinct has not yet been triggered. The tiger of Sumatra is forced to leave his island because when it comes to protecting the tiger’s natural habitat or maintaining palm oil revenues, the choice is foregone.

Unemployment is more widely feared than the destruction of the environment because it strikes cruelly at the heart of each family in each country. We share nonetheless the same struggles without realizing it: the flourishing of our species within its dependant ties with the Earth.

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